Cincinnati players celebrate in the locker room after a total team effort (Bengals.com photo/Ryan Meyer).
All HANDS ON DECK
By Dr. John Huang
(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – Halloween seemed like such a long time ago. Any long-suffering Bengals fan will remember Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium that night as a virtual house of horrors. The Browns rushed for 172 yards and forced two Cincinnati turnovers for a dominant 32 – 13 win. That defeat evened the Bengals’ record at 4 – 4 and left everybody doubting if Zac Taylor’s squad could recover enough to sniff the playoffs.
My, how times have changed! Just a scant eight weeks later, the Bengals are the hottest team in the NFL after beating their hated divisional rivals 23 – 10 in the latest chapter of “The Battle of Ohio.” Not only did Cincinnati (9 – 4) win its fifth straight game, it also snapped Cleveland’s five-game series win streak. The 66,222 at Paycor Stadium—the fourth biggest crowd ever—witnessed Bengals quarterback phenom Joe Burrow win for the first time against the uppity hordes from the north.
This one required the proverbial team effort. With Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Hayden Hurst all sidelined with injuries, it really was all hands on deck.
Of course, Burrow did amazing Joe Burrow things. Even minus a trio of top receivers, Joey Franchise completed 18-of-33 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown. His 15-yard thread-the-needle strike to Ja’Marr Chase gave the Bengals an early lead they would never relinquish. Chase, as reliable as ever, racked up 119 yards on 10 catches for his routine day at the office.
Not to be outdone, the Bengals’ rushing attack held its own also. The dynamic duo of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine kept the Browns defense in a perpetual state of suspense. Mixon, returning from a two-game absence in concussion protocol, responded with 14 carries for 96 yards. Perine added 22 yards on four carries, including a sneaky six-yard touchdown scamper as he bounced around right tackle.
“Just really locking in and dialing into the game plan,” said Mixon. “The guys on the perimeter, the tight ends, even the linemen running out there. They did a hell of a job blocking today. Me and Perine were fortunate enough to make plays behind them. Me and him were breaking tackles, [the] second contact leading us to get all those yards.”
The real first responders in this one, however, appeared on the other side of the ball. The Bengals defense held the opposing dynamic duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt to a measly combined 40 yards on 18 rushing attempts. Linebacker Logan Wilson recorded 17 tackles (14 solo), Jessie Bates intercepted a pass, and Lou Anarumo’s unit stopped Cleveland on three fourth down attempts.
“Sometimes you just gotta find a way to win games,” Logan acknowledged in a boisterous Bengals locker room afterwards. “Whatever that way is—it’s going to change each week…The D-line played great. It starts up front with them. DJ [Reader], B.J. [Hill], Sam [Hubbard], Trey [Hendrickson], the guys that rotate in. It always starts up front. When they play well, it allows us in the back end to play well too.”
With their defense ratcheting up, the Bengals offense finally came around. Perhaps no play better demonstrated how far the Bengals have progressed than the 45-yard flea-flicker touchdown toss to a wide-open Trenton Irwin midway through the third quarter.
“We’ve got decent control of the game,” Coach Zac Taylor explained. “You’re starting to run the ball well [which puts pressure on the defensive backs]. It was just the right moment to call it. We needed to be on the correct hash. Everything played into our hand. They had some substitutions to their defensive ends that were out, which is always helpful on a long play like that. It just so happened that we had the right coverage.”
That type of play calling seems a long way removed from some of the boneheaded fourth-down decisions that plagued Taylor earlier in the year.
“We learned from our losses,” Taylor waxed philosophically. “I don’t know that we’d be the same team had we not lost some of those early games…We try to win every game. I don’t want to lose, but we certainly learned from those early season losses that helped us be the team that we are today.”
That was then. This is now. It’s full speed ahead as the Bengals head next to Tampa Bay, still chasing the Ravens for the AFC North crown.
Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669